Did you ever play Metroid? I don't mean the Super Nintendo classic Super Metroid, but the original Nintendo game. If not, perhaps you played Wizardry or Ultima, or many other such early console RPGs. Do you remember the excitement of entering an unknown dungeon, unsure of what awaits you, with only your wits to guide you? Taking some graph paper and mapping out every step, making notes, marking locations to return to later and worrying every step of the way about some horrible new monster that you may have to defeat? If this brings back a rush of nostalgia, then Etrian Odyssey is shaping up to be just the game for you. Doing away with the convoluted plots that generally make up Japanese RPGs, Etrian Odyssey is boiling things back down to their most simple form: exploring a mysterious dungeon with nothing but your wits and a sword.
Creating a character in Etrian Odyssey requires a bit more forethought than most games that allow you to do something similar. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses that must be considered from the very beginning. For example, a Landsknecht is your average warrior, who can equip most weapons and armor, but have little to offer the party outside combat. Their polar opposite is the Survivalist, a weak combatant who can make exploring the depths of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth easier. With nine different classes available to you, making a party of five and taking them through the entire game will only make your adventure more stressful. Learning which class is useful at which level of the Labyrinth can mean the difference between life and death.
Even further customization comes in the form of skills. Each class has its own unique set of skills that can be learned, from a number of different branches. For example, a Protector can learn to focus on Shields, healing spells, or simply on his own personal defensive abilities. An Alchemist can be built to master a single type of elemental spell, be a jack of all trades, or even to focus on item collection. Placing skill points at random is sure to hurt you later on, and the only way to reallocate skill points is to sacrifice 10 hard-earned levels!
The Yggdrasil Labyrinth is where you'll be spending most of your time in Etrian Odyssey. Once your guild is populated with willing adventurers, it's time to journey into its depths. Unsurprisingly, the labyrinth is filled with dangerous foes and fantastic treasures, and it's your goal to reach the very bottom — but there are many things to do along the way. Rare monsters and materials are found inside the labyrinth, which don't exist anywhere else in the world. Naturally, these items are in high demand, and so many townsfolk hire adventurers to quest down into the dungeon and find specific items. The rewards for these missions go a long way toward powering up your guild members.
Exploring the Yggdrasil Labyrinth isn't a simple task, or it would have been done before. The labyrinth is divided into stratums, each made up of multiple levels, which get progressively more dangerous the further you venture down. The earliest levels are filled with simple dangers like tree rats and poisoned fruit, but as you venture further, more dangerous events begin to occur. No matter how innocent something may appear, unwary adventurers may find themselves ambushed by monsters or cursed and poisoned by a deadly trap. Almost all the stratum of the labyrinth are uncharted, so your guild members are effectively going in blind, until they chart out these levels for themselves.
In fact, charting the dungeon is a major part of the game because Etrian Odyssey takes a decidedly old-school turn in mapping. The title does not map itself for you, but instead allows you to use the bottom touch-screen to draw the map yourself. The touch-screen is divided into a series of grids, with each step you take marking one grid on the map. While the game's built-in auto-map feature will highlight the grids you've stepped on, it adds no details. It's up to you to do that yourself. Thankfully, mapping the Yggdrasil Labyrinth is a relatively simple task. You can draw walls using the stylus and use a number of pre-created icons to mark special locations within the dungeon. You can mark a door you want to check later, steps to the upper or lower floors, or even just weird events that you've encountered. The game even features a memo icon which allows you to write a note to yourself about a specific grid for later. However, the most important feature of the map is tracking FOEs.
FOEs are unlike the common monsters that populate the dungeon in that they are not a random encounter, and they are incredibly powerful. FOEs are visible to you, both on the upper screen and on your map screen. When you first encounter a FOE, it will most likely slaughter you in a matter of moments, should you even enter battle against it. Your primary goal is to avoid these bloodthirsty behemoths, and luckily, there are advantages that make this doable. One advantage is that the FOEs only move when your party does, so you don't have to worry about one sneaking up behind you while you're checking your map. For the most part, FOEs have a set pattern they move along, so clever gamers can find the gaps in the FOE's migration and slip through without altering the monster. You can simply memorize it, or use the helpful map icons to mark the path for yourself. Be warned, however, that not all FOEs are so willing to ignore the scent of prey. Some FOE will stalk your party, their map icon turning red once they pick up your scent. From there, your only hope is to move away fast enough that the FOE loses interest.
If there is one set of words to describe Etrian Odyssey, it is "old school." Compared to most recent RPGs, many elements of Etrian Odyssey will seem bizarrely backwards and strange to new gamers. However, to those of us who grew up on Wizardry and Ultima, Etrian Odyssey is a trip into the nostalgia of our childhood. With that said, even new gamers should be looking forward to a trip into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, as the title's significant challenge and massive amount of customization should be enough to sate the appetite of even the most hardcore of gamers.
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